Mark Houck, a 48-year-old pro-life protester, was acquitted by a jury on charges of violating the 1993 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.
The Department of Justice had accused Houck of trying to intimidate and interfere with a volunteer escort at a Planned Parenthood center in Philadelphia.
Houck faced a maximum sentence of 11 years in prison and a $350,000 fine.
The FACE Act prohibits “violent, threatening, damaging, and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain, or provide reproductive health services,” according to the National Catholic Register.
Houck admitted to pushing 72-year-old Bruce Love, but claimed it was in self-defense after Love repeatedly harassed his 12-year-old son. Love’s behavior reportedly included “inappropriate and disgusting” comments.
After local authorities declined to press charges, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) stepped in, dispatching a team of FBI agents to arrest Houck at gunpoint in front of his terrified wife and children, the Register notes. The morning raid on Sep 23, 2022 at the family’s home sparked outrage within pro-life circles and condemnation from many federal lawmakers, who denounced the FBI’s heavy-handed tactics and the Justice Department’s use of the FACE Act.
Even though the federal law was written to prosecute crimes at pro-life pregnancy centers and religious sites, it has largely been used against pro-life activists.
Critics felt that the Biden administration charged Houck under the FACE Act to set a political example and threaten other pro-life activists.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert had previously stated that the prosecution seemed “stretched a little thin,” raising the possibility that the case should never have been brought to trial.
Pro-life supporters were outraged when Houck was arrested by the FBI in a dawn raid.
They worried that the case would have serious consequences on the religious liberty rights of pro-life activists.
Houck’s attorney, Peter Breen, expressed concern over the potential precedent this case could set for sidewalk counselors across the country.
“If this is allowed to stand, it’s an invitation to abortion escorts to be very aggressive,” he told the Christian Broadcast Network.
“And the federal government can take any case it wants, you know, they can indict anybody they want, they can take any case they want to trial,” Breen went on to say. “And so, if this is allowed to stand it would create a horrible and dangerous precedent for sidewalk counseling across the country.”